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Chronicling National Poetry Month, vol. III: Spotlight on the Poetry of America series

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Listen: Mary Jo Bang reads and discusses Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl, Part III.”


The following is a guest post by Anastasia Nikolis, a graduate student intern in the Poetry and Literature Center and a PhD candidate in the English department at the University of Rochester.

This week’s National Poetry Month feature spotlights the Poetry of America series on the Poetry and Literature Center’s website. Poetry of America is a series of recordings from active contemporary American poets who select a poem written by another American poet, read the poem, and then provide a few comments about “how the poem connects, deepens, or re-imagines [their] sense of the nation.” America is famously thought of as a melting pot—made up of many people with many diverse experiences. Each of these poets and their selected poems speak to different facets that come together to make up a larger American experience.

Allen Ginsberg, 1926-1997.

To celebrate National Poetry Month, the Poetry and Literature Center has uploaded nine new recordings to the series from poets like Mary Jo Bang, who reads Allen Ginsberg; Carl Phillips, who reads Walt Whitman; and C. D. Wright, who reads Besmilr Brigham. Because America is so vast and so diverse, many of the poets in the series have chosen poets and poems that either speak to something in their own lived experience, as Carl Phillips has in choosing a poem by Walt Whitman, who also contended with being a gay American writer. Or, they choose poets who speak to their sense of their particular American heritage, as C. D. Wright did in choosing a poem by Besmilr Brigham, a poet who made her home in Wright’s native state of Arkansas, and whose work speaks to the experience of the American rural south. Many of these selections are poems that speak to shared experiences—poems that represent the feeling we all have at one point or another when we find someone else’s words in a book and swear we never thought anyone else could have lived that same experience, too.

Besmilr Brigham, 1913-2000. Photo: Heloise Brigham Wilson.

But they are also poems that try to capture the huge variation that makes up the larger American identity. In choosing a section of Howl by Allen Ginsberg, Mary Jo Bang selects a poem that aims to capture the full dynamic complexity of America at a particular historic moment, while also speaking to the American poetic tradition—a literary tradition that is still in its infancy in comparison to other national literary canons. As Bang explains in her comments, Ginsberg’s famous long poem borrows its structure from Walt Whitman’s magnum opus, Song of Myself, and tries to capture the anxieties of America as a whole in the 1950s: a country that is, among other things, recovering from World War II, learning the vibrations of rock and roll, and explicitly acknowledging sex.

As just the small selection of this post highlights, there’s an unavoidable tension when being faced with the question, what is a ‘poetry of America’? Since America is both so many individuals and the large composite of those individual experiences, there is an impulse to respond with a particular narrative of a singular American experience, as well as to try to capture multiple narratives at once.

Walt Whitman, 1819-1892.

In light of this difficulty, it’s fitting that so many of these poets go back to Whitman—either directly, or by way of other poets who went back to Whitman first—to answer the question. Whitman was preoccupied with the question before there was even an American literary canon to speak of, and was writing during the Civil War when the identity of the country was so fragmented and under threat. In the long catalogs of people and experiences that make up Song of Myself, Whitman shines light on life “among black folks as among white,/ Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff”; he draws attention to mothers, to “Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests environ the anvil,” and to runaway slaves. He tries to include everyone in the long lines of his long poem, recognizing the grandiosity—and the difficulty—of such an endeavor toward the end when he famously concludes, “Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” He seems to recognize that contradiction is inevitable when trying to capture so many disparate experiences, but the inclusive act is worth striving for anyway.

Keep checking back for new recordings and new voices in the Poetry of America series as it keeps trying to capture American multitudes.

Listen: Carl Phillips reads and discusses Walt Whitman’s “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing.”